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Thursday, December 21, 2006

A House Divided - Washington, DC

The view from the seventh floor is dazzling – sunset behind the Washington Memorial, water shimmering around Jefferson, city lights coming alive. I am looking out from the City View Room in a building at George Washington University, where we are about to hold the DC premiere of Divided We Fall, our last screening of the calendar year, hosted by the GW Sikh Student Association and the Smithsonion Asian Pacific American Program. I have a moment to take in the view before it all begins.

I spot the Lincoln Memorial. I remember coming to Washington, DC every summer in high school for the annual National History Day competition. In the early evenings, my family would visit the National Mall, and I’d sit at the feet of Lincoln, imagining what would lay in store for me. Lincoln is remembered to say, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Since September 11, 2001, I have witnessed how racism, fear, and self-preservation can divide a nation. The borders that divide us today are invisible, perpetuated in myth and media, erected in the mind and heart, separating “us” from “them.” Lincoln waged a war to save the union; now those of us who have come of age in 9/11’s aftermath take up our pens and turn on our cameras to fight for recognition in that union. The stories in the film are part of that fight, I realize, as I return to Washington, DC with the first feature-length film on hate violence in post-9/11 America, my new History Day project.

The premiere is about to begin. More than 200 people fill the lobby and wait for the doors to open. Inside the banquet room, GW students are adding the finishing touches: they cover the tables with white cloth, center the flower arrangements, place postcards on the tables, light the candles, and suddenly the doors open. It is magical. Hundreds of people flood the room and take their seats. People are standing in the back and sitting on the floor. The room is buzzing, everyone is excited, the energy palpable, and in the very back, I turn to my director Sharat and ask him to remind me that there is no reason to be nervous. We’ve done this nearly a dozen times in the last few months, traveling from city to city across America. And yet, the butterflies take over my stomach before every screening.

We are introduced by President of the GW Sikh Student Association Shana Narula (pictured below). She presents the film as part of the organization's annual dinner in honor of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh teacher.

As the film begins, I notice the different kinds of people in the room – students from the university, locals who get Smithsonian news, members of the Sikh community, people who work at the FBI, our friends and their colleagues, and many more. A truly diverse audience. As the journey goes deeper, the audience comes alive – their laughter is loud, their silence is deep, and before the credits are even over, they applaud and rise to give us a standing ovation.

Sharat and I are deeply moved when we take the stage for the Q&A. We talk about the process of making the film, the stories we didn't include, the possibilities for change. A Sikh doctor shares his experience with racism. Another man wants to know how to ask someone about their identity with respect. A woman brings up the need to show this film in France, where a ban against wearing religious articles of faith is keeping Sikh and Muslim children from public schools. Another discusses how minority communities can get stories like this into the mainstream.

After the discussion, Shana presents us with flowers and gifts, and dinner is served. Everyone continues the conversation over hot plates of delicious Punjabi food. But I don’t eat a bite. I am talking to people, one after another – a group of lawyers who reflect on the power and limits of law, a French woman who wants to bring the movie to Paris, an African-American Sikh woman who has followed our work for years, individuals at the FBI who want to help get our film seen, and law students who invite us to a follow-up discussion at their university. Muneer Ahmad comes up to congratulate us. He is the professor at American Law School who provides some of our best analysis in the film, and I am grateful and relieved that he too loves the movie. It is a stunning night in the life of the film.

A few days later, Sharat and I visit the law school at American University for a follow-up discussion. We were invited by Amna Arshad (pictured), Hanan Idilbi, and a handful of law students who attended the screening. As the conversation deepens, we realize that nearly all the students at the round-table chose to pursue law degrees for the same reason: to gain the power to respond directly to social injustices. While the interests varied - from domestic violence to immigrant struggles - we were all committed to working toward... a more perfect union. It is inspiring to imagine a generation of students like this.

What now? Now we rest for a few weeks before we are swept up once again in our now international tour - from Boston to Mumbai to Berkeley to Omaha, we have adventures in store in the new year. We hope that this energy will propel the film to ever-wider audiences and continue to deepen the dialogue about who we are and who we want to be.

Thanks to Shana Narula and all the members of the Sikh Student Association at GW for an incredible night. Thanks also to the Smithsonian for co-sponsoring our premiere! And of course what would we do without Jessica Jenkins, our director of research, who traveled from New York City, to help make our Washington, DC premiere a fabulous success.

[This entry is cross-posted on "Into the Whirlwind"]

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